Vera Katz, a tiny woman who made a giant impact on the state of Oregon, died Monday.
Katz was Oregon’s first female speaker of the House and served three terms at Portland’s mayor. Under her leadership, the city developed a national reputation for urban redevelopment and smarter growth.
Katz’s son, journalist Jesse Katz, talked to OPB’s Crystal Ligori about his mother’s life. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player at the top of this story. Here are some highlights:
Katz was known for her tenacity. Jesse Katz says that came from her childhood:
To understand who she was in public life, you have to look back at her origin story and keep in mind that she was an immigrant who came to this country when she was 7 years old, escaping Nazi-occupied Europe and landing in America and speaking only French and Russian, wanting very much to belong here and feel welcome here. When I look at her long list of accomplishments and the amazing legacy that she’s left on the state of Oregon, the city of Portland, I just think about this little girl who came here on a boat like so many other desperate people — and the sense of gratitude that she had, and ultimately the sense of responsibility.
Katz’s childhood also led to her political philosophy.
She very much related to people who were excluded, people who felt powerless or voiceless. She wanted to give them a hand or a leg up because she felt that she had been very much in their shoes.
When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, mom tried to help carry on some of his initiatives through something called the Kennedy Action Corps. That was her more formal entry into the political sphere.
She was very much an early feminist and barrier breaker in the city of Portland. She would be out in front of the City Club (of Portland) at the Benson Hotel protesting that no women were allowed in. She would help stage sit-ins at the lunch counters at the five-and-dime department stores in downtown Portland because they wouldn’t serve women, because the seats were reserved for “businessmen” only.
You look at her now, and you think of how admired and appreciated she was as the mayor of Portland, but there was nothing inevitable about that. You look back at the doors she had to knock on — literally break down — in order to even enter into public life.
Of all her projects, the Eastbank Esplanade might have been her favorite.
We recently had some conversations about the Esplanade and how important that was, how today is seems like almost a no-brainer, the sort of thing any city would kill to have. But when my mom first proposed that … she was widely mocked for it. There was so much skepticism about the cost and the noise and the narrowness of it, that it made no sense.
She really had a vision not just of it being a nice accoutrement for the city, but a piece of the civic infrastructure that would unite the two sides of Portland and really bring east and west together in a beautiful loop.
Every time I’m in Portland visiting, I try to take a run on the Eastbank Esplanade and pay tribute to her statue, but also do the whole loop.